Sooner or later, there’s one “fact” that will always be mentioned by anyone discussing the origins and creation of Doctor Who; that its debut episode, An Unearthly Child, was broadcast “the day after President Kennedy was assassinated”. It’s become such a commonplace link that I’m quite sure few people even think about it; it’s just a well-worn and comfortable idea that’s easy to trip off the tongue. A bit of a cliché, in fact.
What really links the deliberate murder of the Head of State of the United States of America (and, so tradition has it, the then leader of the Western/Free World) with the launch of “an adventure in space and time” on British television, albeit a TV series that has since grown into an iconic, multi-media brand recognisable around the world? When I hear people linking the two—on occasions almost suggesting some kind of causal connection between the two events—I can’t help but wonder whether pro-Kennedy Americans of a certain age might find the whole idea a tad insulting. After all, would we be happy if Americans chose to always link the launch of some silly TV show with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales?
Doctor Who was certainly the first programme to air once BBC television returned to its advertised schedule, following its ongoing coverage of the events across the Atlantic. As a result, the show possibly suffered in terms of potential ratings as shocked viewers switched off their sets in order to contemplate the state of their Kennedy-less world—hence the BBC’s unusual decision to re-run An Unearthly Child the following week before that Saturday’s scheduled episode, The Cave of Skulls.
But, of course, the only actual connection between the two is timing; and it’s pretty coincidental, not least because, until fairly late in the day, it was expected that Doctor Who would have begun at least a few weeks earlier than it eventually did. Would we have still tried to link the show’s beginning to some other historical event, I wonder?
Of course, the assassination of JFK is one of those “Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?” kind of events, so the linking of An Unearthly Child with those shots in Dallas is a way of giving it some historical context, a marker point. But, to be honest, it does strike me as being in slightly bad taste, all the same. Not that, as a committed fan of the show, I’m immune from that habit; it’s just that most of the “historical” references that I link with the show are intrinsically far more personal in nature.
Take, for example, another “child”: The Empty Child. In my mind at least, that episode, first broadcast on 21 May 2005, is forever linked with my niece’s wedding, along with the fact that it was also the first episode of the 21st century incarnation of the show that I didn’t watch “as broadcast”. (At the time, I was busy enjoying my brother’s Father of the Bride speech, and eyeing up one of the waiters.)
There are numerous other examples I can give; the only occasion I can consciously remember some religious folk ringing my mother’s doorbell was on 25 November 1983, because they dared to do so while I was watching The Five Doctors (and, such was the different media world we lived in back then, it would be several years before I finally caught up with the seconds I missed between leaving the living room and returning after angrily slamming the front door shut in their devout, disappointed faces). I know for certain that my mum was, unusually, doing some ironing (which was not one of her usual Saturday afternoon activities) on 30 August 1980, simply because it coincided with the memorable “new look” first part of The Leisure Hive. The third episode of Carnival of Monsters, shown on Saturday 10 February 1973, is forever linked in my mind to a visit to family friends in Fife because that’s where my Mum made sure I was able to watch it. And so on.
I’m confident that most fans of the show will have made similar kinds of links, because (in general) we are generally much more focused on watching Doctor Who. Admittedly, given the increased transmission of episodes across a growing number of digital channels (BBC One, BBC Three, Watch, etc), as well as unlimited accessibility via DVD/Blu-Ray or iTunes, I do wonder if such clarity will continue to be the case. I hope it will.